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A short biography of Alfred's life. For a more detailed look at each year of his life, click here.
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Author, linguist, soldier, hammerman, builder, artist, naturalist, scholar, folk song collector, poet, historian, philosopher and more... For somebody who busied himself with so many projects, it's something of a paradox that Alfred Williams is remembered as a man who lived a very simple life.

Shutting himself away for hours at his writing desk and never allowing himself anything that might be considered an indulgence - apart from his book collection - his comes across as a strangely monochrome life, even though his world exploded with colour whenever he put pen to paper to describe what he saw. There was little, if anything, in Alfred's childhood, to suggest the achievements to come, and plenty to suggest that here was another ordinary young man about to lead an ordinary life.

Born at Cambria Cottage, South Marston, on February 7, 1877, he was barely five years old when his father walked out on his mother, forcing her to move Alfred and his half-a-dozen siblings down the road to the little Rose Cottage. Rudimentary schooling increasingly gave way to the need to work on the local farms to help support the ailing family, and a much bigger decision was looming. Either Alfred could stay in South Marston and live a life of uncertain poorly paid agricultural work or he could follow his brothers to the more secure, better paid but soul-destroying industry of the Great Western Railway's giant works at Swindon, four miles away. In the end, even a boy of the fields like Alfred couldn't make much of an argument for the former.

But the young man who would eventually give the best years of his life to the hardships of the stamping shop almost immediately began compensating by educating himself and giving into his own creative urges.

Working entirely in his meagre spare time, either at home or in breaks at work, he learned the classics, read Shakespeare, experimented with painting, taught himself languages and, all the time, went about absorbing whatever information he could about the natural world and the people around him. Not even his love for Mary, a childhood friend, then sweetheart, then wife, deflected him when he finally decided that merely reading was not enough when his calling was clearly to write.

Poetry came first, and by his 21st birthday he had organised his thoughts into a play in verse, Sardanapalus, although that was never published. He had to wait a further five years, until 1909, before his first book was published - the first of six collections of poetry, which was called Songs in Wiltshire.

Poems in Wiltshire followed in 1911, then Nature and Other Poems the following year. It was also the year that his first book of prose was published - an observation on life in South Marston called A Wiltshire Village that was so high on realism that the eccentric village vicar somehow found offence it in and burned his copy.

The following year brought another book of poetry - Cor Cordium - and another of prose, Villages of the White Horse, expanding Alfred's sphere beyond South Marston to the neighbouring villages.

Though most of his work was well received and he now had a reputation strong enough for his efforts to be reviewed in The Times and for another national newspaper to dub him 'the hammerman poet," none of Alfred's books were commercial enough to allow him to leave the factory, let alone provide him with a comfortable income.

In fact, only the moral support of his friends and the generosity of benefactors made it possible for him to continue to pubilsh, especially as his pride would only allow him to accept the minimum of financial assistance necessary to see his books into print. It was through friends' efforts that three different prime ministers got to hear of his plight, but they were unable to authorise the permanent civil pension that would have made all the difference. However, Alfred did receive occasional stopgap 'grants', and although modest, they may even have meant the difference between life and death - especially after 1914, which was to be a critical year in Alfred's life.

Dogged by ill health and finally heeding the warnings from his doctor, Alfred was forced to leave the railway works and try to make ends meet as best as he could through market gardening at Dryden Cottage, where he and Mary and lived since they were married in 1903.

At least it freed him to publish Life in a Railway Factory, a warts-and-all account of his experiences 'inside' (as Swindon folk always called employment in the works), which could not have been published while in the employ of the GWR. Alfred must have known that the priceless insight that the book gives us into what life was really like for industrial workers on the eve of the First World War would mean the book spoke to the future even louder than it did the present.

Indeed, Swindon was no different to any other British town in 1914 for being more concerned about the war than anything else, even industrial relations and social injustice. The war fired up the same patronism in Alfred as it did in most of the rest of his generation, and if his ill-health prevented him from enlisting, he could still contribute to the war effort in his own way. He wrote a series of war poems for the local press that were eventually published in book form as War Songs and Sonnets in 1916.

By then the horrors of the Somme were changing attitudes and bending rules, so that Alfred and others who had previously been overlooked found themselves passing medicals that they would not have passed in 1914. So Alfred, who was still keen to do his bit, ended up on a ship bound for India.

This episode in his life not only separated him from Mary but also his beloved mother, who died during his absence, but nevertheless provided him with arguably the greatest experience of his life. Alfred was completely captivated with the culture and religion of India to such an extent that he threw himself back into self-education, even learning Sanskrit in an attempt to understand more about what made India India.

And he took up his pen again, writing three more books of prose about his new experiences - Boys of the Battery, Indian Life and Scenery and Round the Cape to India. None were ever published.

It was 1922 before publisheres saw him as remotely viable again, and Round About the Upper Thames, a book finished eight years earlier, finally made it into print. It was followed, in 1923, by Folk Songs of the Upper Thames, which featured the best of a vast collection of hundreds of folk song lyrics he had assembled just prior to the war. His self-apoointed mission to help preserve the dying tradition of folksong was achieved by cycling around the area, mostly during the winter - a labour of love that now earns him celebrity status among English folksinging enthusiasts across Britain.

More books followed, but neither The Banks of Isis, the fourth of his 'village' books, nor a book of political musings called Letters From a Working Man to Working Men could find a publisher, although a sixth and final book of poetry, called Selected Poems, did. Made up of the best of his previously published poems and a selection of new ones, including some inspired by India, it would be the last time a book by Alfred would be published in his lifetime.

A last, somewhat desperate attempt to earn money from writing failed when a semi-autobiographical novel called The Steamhammer Shop went unpublished, and although an English translation of the classic book of India fables called Tales From the Panchatantra was published in 1930, Alfred never lived to see it.

Consumed by grief after visiting Mary in hospital in Swindon, where she was terminally ill will cancer, 53-year-old Alfred collapsed and died on April 10, 1930 - at Ranikhet, the South Marston cottage where he and Mary had lived since 1922.

The two had built Ranikhet - named after the hill station where he was posted in 1917 - with their bare hands. They had bought stones from an old cottage and later a derelict canal lock and manhandled them to the little plot in the centre of South Marston. It was as typical of the single-minded determination that had become Alfred's trademark. But his legacy cannot be found in bricks and mortar.

That legacy is two-fold. On the one had is Alfred the man, who overcame low birth, poverty and ill health, and whose struggle is, in itself, an inspiration. We should be impressed that Alfred managed to write anything at all, but to focus only on the struggle and not the end product is to do him a disservice as a writer.

It may be true that his poems are a reflection of the times in which they were written, and therefore have limited appeal in the 21st century, but his turns of phrase, his mastery of the language and, above all, the love of life that shines through should not be overlooked.

And his prose is impressive in its own right. Not only are his observations sharp and vivid, but his writing also has an agelessness, a natural, relaxed beauty and fluency that makes it just as readable, 80 years after his death, than it was when it was new. And maybe even more readable.

Alfred Williams is a true local hero for the people Swindon and the area around it - even if they don't know it yet.


By Graham Carter
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For a more detailed look at each year of Alfred's life, click here.

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